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Between Orthodox and Roman Catholic Rosaries
What is the difference between Orthodox and Roman Catholic rosaries?
There's very little written history about the Orthodox Church's prayer rope or 'rosary' (as it's known in the West). We know that Orthodox monasticism has roots or at least parallels in pre-Christian monasticism as practiced in India. There are too many similarities between the ceremonies for setting apart Indian Monastics and Orthodox Christian Monastics to be simply coincidence. Both wear special symbolic cloths under their other clothing, both are vested in sandals, both are given a staff, and a knotted cord on which to pray.
Most of the history of the prayer rope is in oral form, passed down among Monastics, because it's use is essentially a monastic tradition. Use of the prayer rope is ancient in Orthodox spirituality, and it predates the use of the rosary (meaning 'rose garden') by centuries. The earliest form of the prayer rope is a small ladder made of knotted leather thongs or plaited string, usually having a hundred 'rungs.' This symbolizes the ladder seen by Jacob in his dream and reminds the user of the spiritual ladder of ascent to heaven through the struggle with passions and the practice of virtues. This type of prayer cord is still seen in portions of the Middle East, particularly in the desert monasteries.
Its later form, called a 'lestovka' (ladder) by the Slavs, was long used in Russia, from the conversion of that land until about the 17th century. This "ladder" is made of leather strips folded and sewn into narrow flaps or leaves and generally has 103 or 107 steps. Saint Seraphim is usually shown holding one of these in his icons, and this form too is still in use among many Orthodox Christians.
The most popular and recent form is the knotted cord commonly seen today, in which the manner of tying the knots produces nine crosses in each separate knot. Among the Slavs, this form became widespread but only rather lately, following the liturgical reforms of Patriarch Nikon in the 17th century, and it has co-existed with continued use of the older forms.
The Orthodox prayer rope traditionally is made of string or leather so it doesn't make noise. Thirty-three, one hundred, or three hundred knots are the common sizes. It's used by Monastics to count repetitions of the Prayer of the Heart (also called the Jesus Prayer), which may replace attendance at Services for those assigned to work. As such, there's nothing wrong with laymen using the 'ladder' for mental prayer, or Prayer of the Heart. The Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner" or the Prayer of the Publican, "Lord, have mercy on me a sinner" are the two prayers most commonly said as the Prayer of the Heart.
Monastics are 'clothed' with the ladder as part of their 'habit' or vestment, and they sometimes wear the ladder on their left wrists. Because the ladder is part of the official vestment or habit of Monastics, it's more proper for laymen to keep their 'ladder' in their pockets.
The Roman Catholic rosary is made of ten sets of ten beads set apart by ten larger beads, on which various prayers are said. Sometimes a group of people recite prayers on the rosary together, as a paraliturgical service.
Nowadays some Orthodox 'ladders' are made to resemble Roman rosaries, divided into sets of ten, set off by a larger bead or knot for decoration.
See 'The History of the Prayer Rope' in Life Transfigured magazine, Vol 22, #3, Nativity, 1990, published by The Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration, Ellwood City, Pennsylvania.
Source: Assumption Orthodox Quarterly
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